2014: Fukushima's appalling death toll

11. März 2011 - 11. März 2014 Fukushima in Nordostjapan
The Japan Times, March 1, 2014

Fukushima’s appalling death toll

As the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake approaches, new studies of the ongoing effects of the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown show that the disaster is far from over.

The latest report from Fukushima revealed that more people have died from stress-related illnesses and other maladies after the disaster than from injuries directly linked to the disaster. The report compiled by prefectural authorities and local police found that the deaths of 1,656 people in Fukushima Prefecture fall into the former category. That figure surpasses the 1,607 people who died from disaster-related injuries. Another 434 people have died since 3/11 in Iwate Prefecture and 879 in Miyagi Prefecture. These indirect causes are just as deadly as the direct causes, and are likely to last much longer unless the central government takes action.

In another report, the first of its kind since the disaster, the lifetime risk of cancer for young children was found to have increased because of exposure to radiation. While the increase was relatively small — a mere 1.06 percent in areas close to the crippled nuclear plant — the results, which were published in the U.S. science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were the first projections of the harmful effects from exposure to radiation released by the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.

These two reports both show that despite the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s claims that things are under control, the disaster continues to threaten the lives and well-being of people in the hardest hit areas of Fukushima, Miyage and Iwate prefectures.

The reports highlight the fact that much of the problem stems from the government’s poor handling of the after-effects of the disaster and Tepco’s continuing inept handling of the cleanup at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The health ministry has insisted that the possibility of indirectly caused deaths diminished one month after the earthquake. However, these reports show that the health ministry is in denial about the existence of problems and is resistant to finding ways to address problems survivors are still suffering.

The ministry should find ways to support hospitals, social workers and local government employees who are trying to step up watch over evacuated residents still living in temporary housing and others still at risk for stress-related problems.

Helping people in the affected areas should not be relegated to a lower priority because other issues come up.

The central and Tokyo metropolitan governments, in their push to win the 2020 Olympics for Tokyo, stressed the unique Japanese cultural sense of omotenashi, or hospitality. But according to the prefectural report, 136,000 people are still displaced from their houses and towns due to the triple-disaster.

Surely those displaced people should receive traditional Japanese hospitality in the form of new homes and rebuilt communities.

Perhaps as each large-scale Olympic project is started in Tokyo, one new permanent housing for displaced residents in Fukushima could be built.

The Olympics in Sochi highlighted the many inequalities and problems in Russian society. Surely the central government in Japan would not want to have foreign journalists contrasting the wonderful conditions for athletes in Tokyo with residents still living in temporary housing and struggling in tough conditions in Fukushima and other areas.

One of the worst continued effects of the disaster is how much stress continues to harm people. The level of stress may be reaching a threshold, as happened in Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, where alcoholism and other problems worsened several years later.

The Fukushima Center for Disaster Mental Health found that consultations for emotional instability, such as irritation, depression and mood swings, increased 50 percent from the 2012, forming 19 percent of total health consultations. The effects of stress may be delayed, but they are no less severe and need just as much attention and care.

The area needs more such mental health care centers and professionals. So far, the centers have largely been formed and directed by the Fukushima prefectural government.

However, the central government, along with Tepco, should provide more financial support so that health care workers can go out to check on the 136,000 people who are still displaced.

Volunteers helped considerably in the immediate aftermath of the 3/11 disaster, and the need for professional help for survivors in Fukushima Prefecture continues.

Issues of financial compensation for individuals are extremely complex and take time to go through legal channels. Money problems also add to the level of stress. The government and Tepco could work to speed up the process of compensation. That’s especially important considering that about 90 percent of those who have died since the initial 3/11 toll were at least 66 years old.

In so doing, they would considerably lower the stress on people still living in temporary housing or in difficult conditions.

The third anniversary of the disaster is March 11. Anti-nuclear groups have already planned mass rallies against nuclear power on March 9.

There is still much left to protest about. Included on the long agenda of Fukushima disaster-related problems that still need to be dealt with should be improving the lives of disaster victims.

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